With so many forms of exercise available today, zeroing in on the optimal workout routine can be daunting. But it turns out that while the latest high-tech machines and exercise fads may have considerable merit, with workouts as in life, the best things are often free or at least nearly so.
In the case of sandbags, the fact that these pieces of ultra-simple exercise equipment can often be constructed for just a few dollars belies the incredibly robust workouts that they can provide. With sandbag exercises, you get far more than you pay for, at least if you are only counting the dollar cost.
But as we’ll see, the cost in energy, effort and focus required for sandbag training rivals any other form of exercise. For those who want an economical and convenient way to get a world-class workout at home, sandbag-based exercises may be the best option. Sand bags provide an effective means of functional stability training, the benefits of which are well known. They can also provide both aerobic and strength training, both of which have huge long-term health benefits.
Even for those who have gym memberships, adopting sandbag exercises is a great way to greatly strengthen muscles that aren’t normally targeted while giving one of the most superb forms of functional real-world training that exists.
What is sandbag training?
Sandbag exercises involve the use of a weighted bag or bag-like exercise apparatus in order to perform a wide variety of resistance training workouts that are similar or identical to those that are normally done with barbells, dumbbells or machines.
For example, here’s a sandbag being held in the overhead squat position – as might be done ith a barbell.
But sandbags have the added benefit of allowing exercises that are far closer to real-world activities. Due to the inherent instability of the sandbag itself, training with this simplest of exercise equipment can significantly improve balance while giving auxiliary muscle groups an intensity of workout that no other exercise modality can match.
Other forms of instability training, such as exercise balls or instability platforms, often reduce the amount of weight that a person can handle by such a large margin that their exercise sessions are no longer useful for pure strength training. A sand bag, on the other hand, allows users to continue exerting themselves enough to serve as genuine strength training while also building rock-solid balance and working core muscles.
Another defining feature of sand bag training is its ability to help build incredibly strong grip.
Done right, there are few exercises that can enhance grip through a wide range of motions in the way that a sand bag can. This includes not just massively strengthening the grasping force of your hands, but it also includes vastly improving the ability to hoist and hold an unwieldy object through many motions and in many different stances.
Two prominent examples of this are the various high-intensity shouldering workouts, where a bag is hoisted over the shoulder, and bear-hug cleans where the bag is grabbed and then hoisted close to the chest. Both are useful real-world conditioning routines that simply cannot be safely replicated by any other machine or weight.
Perhaps best of all, sand bags may be the single least-expensive piece of exercise equipment that exists. Given the intensity, balance improvement and strength building of sand bag workouts, there is no more cost-effective way to get a full-body workout.
What muscles does sandbag training work?
One of the best aspects of using a sand bag is that it can provide major resistance through almost all common exercise movements as well as facilitating exercises that can only be carried out with its use. Additionally, the sand bag’s inherent instability works auxiliary muscles that are not normally targeted by the exercises in question. In short, once you learn solid sandbag technique, you can work virtually any muscle group. This means that a simple homemade sandbag can act as a serviceable full replacement for any other exercise regimen.
Examples of the main exercises for which sand bags are often used include:
- Forward lunges.
- The clean and press.
- Hip hinges.
- Forward raises.
- Traditional curls.
- Hammer curls.
- And burpees.
However, more advanced use of the sand bag can include complex movements like single-leg deadlift with a true rowing motion, upright rowing with deep squatting and a lying pull over. These and many other sandbag exercises are normally only possible to safely carry out with highly specialized and expensive gym machines.
What’s more, the soft, weight-distributed nature of the sand bag makes it a phenomenally safe means of exercising, completely eliminating the need for a spotter for such exercises as bench presses, squats and deadlifts. Sand bags are almost undoubtedly the single most effective and versatile form of adding free weight to an exercise regimen.
Is sand bag training for cardio or strength?
The beauty of sand bag training is that it is every bit as flexible when it comes to the level of resistance as free weights or machines. This means that it can be used across the whole exercise spectrum, being used to add only minimal resistance to a pure aerobic workout all the way up to low-repetition strength training.
Why use sandbag training?
Sandbag training is probably the most cost-effective form of vigorous weight-bearing exercise that exists. It is also a highly functional form of training, closely approximating myriad real-world tasks. This is one reason that it is a favorite among firefighters, police and other first responders.
The versatility of sandbag training is simply unmatched. And it not only allows people working out alone to do a wide range of exercises that would be unsafe without a spotter, but it also opens up the possibility of doing many types of exercises, such as resistance-loaded burpees, that simply aren’t possible when using any other exercise implement.
What weight to use for sandbag training
The size and weight of the sand bag must be carefully selected by the user based on their ability and goals. Beginners who are looking for an aerobic workout may want to go with a sandbag weighing as little as 10 pounds.
On the extreme opposite end of the spectrum, hardcore strength trainers or first responders looking to train specifically for real-world tasks may want to go well in excess of 100 pounds.
For strongman training, there are bags that can be loaded to 400 lbs of sand.
The great thing about sand bags is that they can easily accommodate this huge weight range safely and affordably.
Sandbag training versus barbell or dumbbell training
As you may have guessed by now, sand bags are astonishingly cheap when compared to free weights. A 100-pound sand bag may only cost $15 to make. A 300-pound set of plates with a 45-pound bar can easily run you $200 or more. A set of good dumbbells can cost even more, well into the thousands of dollars.
Another factor is that barbells severely limit the range of motion and type of exercises that they allow you to do. As noted earlier, the list of exercises for which a sand bag can be effectively used is virtually limitless.
As one example, carrying a sandbag in the zercher hold is way more comfortable than doing the same with a barbell.
Additionally, many barbell exercises can be dangerous to attempt without a spotter. And this is particularly true for those who are newer to lifting. Barbells are also prone to causing severe damage to almost any surface if dropped, including concrete in your basement. Even the heaviest sand bag can be dropped on almost any floor without risk of damage.
However, sand bags do have limitations, especially for serious strength trainers. While it is possible to make a sand bag that weighs in at upwards of 200 pounds, creating sand bags that are much larger than this is generally not feasible. Sand bags are, therefore, an inappropriate choice for most high-end strength training, which many hardcore lifters will find unacceptable.
Sand bags are also unable to provide the level of muscle isolation that is possible with barbells and dumbbells, making their use a potentially undesirable substitute for high-level bodybuilders. Additionally, sandbags can potentially break, leaving a mess. But this is primarily the result of poor construction.
Sandbag training versus kettlebells
While generally less expensive than other free weights, kettlebells can still set you back hundreds of dollars. Sand bags are a highly effective alternative to kettlebells. They can be used with one or both hands, and they provide a high degree of instability. This makes sand bags a particularly attractive kettlebell substitute.
Another bonus is that sand bags can be dropped, whether on purpose or by accident. Kettlebells are dense enough to do serious damage to floor surfaces or walls while sand bags are not.
The only thing that kettlebells have on sand bags is the range of movement, particularly regarding swings. However, sand bags allow for a close enough approximation to every kettlebell movement that they make for a very compelling alternative.
How to start sandbag training
Sand bags are so versatile as an exercise implement that it’s almost impossible to go wrong with them. Just diving in and starting your preferred workout is the way to go.
Required equipment for a sand bag and how to make one yourself
Sand bags are extremely simple. And this makes them easy to build.
Start with a duffel bag – or similar.
Ideally the duffel will be made from tough canvas or a material like Cordura.
Use “filler bags” for the interior weight. Fill Ziplock bags with gravel, wood pellets, rubber mulch or, of course, sand.
Contractor trash bags (3-4 mils thickness plastic) are an even better idea – to ensure there are no tears and sand leaking all over the place.
The filler bags serve two purposes – they help ensure the sand doesn’t make a mess, but it also lets you increase or decrease the weight of the sand bag in small increments.
The filler bags should only be filled about three quarters of the way, enough to weigh around 10 pounds each. They should then be duct taped closed to ensure that they stay intact.
That’s all there is to it!
Commercially available sand bags
A homemade sandbag is a cheap, effective piece of workout gear.
But if you want the best traing experience possible, we recommend one of the commerically available sandbags.
These have the benefit of being made to last, with super-strong military-grade Cordura and similarly rugged materials.
They also come with many easy-to-grip handles and are offered in a wide variety of sizes, with precisely specified weights and stability characteristics.
Let’s look at a few options.
Brute force Sandbags
Brute Force didn’t invent the sandbag – but they were the first to bring it to market as a product.
The Brute Force Sandbag (Buy on Amazon) is tough and has features other bags don’t
These are made in the USA – with tough components – like 1000D Cordura, military-spec velcro, YKK zippers, and more.
Push, pull, throw, slam – there’s no restrictions on what you can do with Brute Force sandbags.
Secondly – they have a lot of handles.
More handles means more options – and it is up to you regarding whether you use them or not.
The Brute Force sandbags have 4 sets of flexible, soft grip handles. That’s a total of 8 handles. There are Neutral Grips, Barbell Grips, Suitcase Grips, and End Cap Grips.
They’ve got multiple bag options up to 125 lbs, and all of them come with multiple filler bags.
The athlete sandbag can be loaded to 75 lbs. The strongman sandbag can be loaded to 125 lbs.
They also come in multiple color options.
Rep Fitness Sandbags
Want another option?
Rep Fitness also has a complete line of sandbags.
These go from a 25lb model all the way to 200 lbs.
These are made from 1000D Cordura (which is super-tough) and have YKK zippers – the last thing you want is a failed zipper.
These models have 6 handles total.
Each comes with multiple filler bags.
Here’s all the sizes – and the color options.
Those are a great budget option.
GORUCK makes gear for “rucking” – walking for time and distance with loaded backpacks.
GORUCK events usually have a lot of extra “fun” too – like a “welcome party” of PT exercises to kick things off.
But, there’s usually a heavy item (or items) that have to be carried as well.
This is in addition to the loaded rucksack on your back.
And sandbags are a popular option for that.
The GORUCK sandbags are made from 1000D Cordura.
Available in 40lb, 60lb, and 80lb sizes – these have YKK zippers and a GORUCK logo on them.
They have padded handles.
You can also attach morale patches via the hook and loop patch area.
The GORUCK bags are a bit on the pricy side, but they are covered by a Lifetime Warranty – as long as you don’t abuse them.
GORUCK makes two sizes of filler bags as well. These use a double-sided velcro closure.
As with all filler bags it is recommended to fill them only about 75% of the way full – otherwise the filler bag may leak – and you’ll have a difficult time closing it.
We did a deep dive on the GORUCK sandbag.
Rogue Fitness Sandbags
Rogue has two lines of sandbag – one for regular people and one for strongman training.
There are four sizes, and the biggest can be loaded up to 220 lbs of sand.
These have 7 handles total. There is only one “endcap” handle.
These are made in the USA, use 1000D Cordura, and have “Rogue” on one side, and “CrossFit” on the other.
Rogue also has two different styles of filler bag.
The funnel filler bag looks to be easier to fill, but the regular filler bags make incremental weight changes a lot more convenient.
That’s because you only use one funnel filler bag per sandbag.
When you order, pick whether you want the single funnel bag, or multiple regular filler bags.
And lastly, Rogue has a line of sandbags for strongman training.
These start at 100lb and go all the way to 400 lbs.
How many handles? ZERO.
In summary — sandbag training
Sandbag training is a versatile, highly effective and inexpensive means of working out, with many compelling benefits.
Sand bags facilitate high-intensity resistance training that is comparable to that provided by free weights and the best exercise machines.
For the money, flexibility, safety and vigor of workouts, the few dollars that an exercise sand bag will cost you may turn out to be the best investment you ever make.
Tim is the founder of FitAtMidlife.com – an avid gym rat for 30+ years, he’s a reviewer of many, many shoes – and founder of the Speed Bag Gathering – the world’s only gathering of speed bag punching enthusiasts. See more gym reviews at Tim’s YouTube channel.